UK firms awarded £1m to help track space junk

Seven UK firms are being given £1 million by the Government to help track space junk.

An estimated 900,000 pieces of debris larger than 1cm are currently orbiting the Earth, including dead satellites as well as fragments left over from previous space missions.

Space junk not only poses a risk to the International Space Station and spacecraft launches, it is also a potential problem for the satellites that provide everything from GPS to weather data on the ground.

The aim is to develop new sensor technology and artificial intelligence to monitor these hazardous objects.

Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “People probably do not realise just how cluttered space is.

“You would never let a car drive down a motorway full of broken glass and wreckages, and yet this is what satellites and the space station have to navigate every day in their orbital lanes.

“In this new age of space megaconstellations, the UK has an unmissable opportunity to lead the way in monitoring and tackling this space junk.

“This funding will help us grasp this opportunity and in doing so create sought-after expertise and new high-skill jobs across the country.”

The projects announced by the UK Space Agency include Lift Me Off, which will develop and test machine learning algorithms to distinguish between functioning satellites and space junk, and Fujitsu, who are combining machine learning and quantum-inspired processing to improve mission planning for debris removal.

Deimos and Northern Space and Security will develop new optical sensors to track space objects from the UK, while Andor, based in Northern Ireland, will keep tabs on smaller sized debris.

Meanwhile, D-Orbit UK will use a space-based sensor to capture images of the debris while new satellite laser ranging technologies will be researched by Lumi Space to precisely track smaller objects.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “Millions of pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth present a significant threat to UK satellite systems which provide the vital services that we all take for granted – from mobile communications to weather forecasting.

“By developing new AI and sensor technology, the seven pioneering space projects we are backing today will significantly strengthen the UK’s capabilities to monitor these hazardous space objects, helping to create new jobs and protect the services we rely on in our everyday lives.”